Atypical Archives: Rendering the Past, Commemoration, and History in South and Central Asia

AHA Session 129
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 8
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Clinton Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Cynthia Talbot, University of Texas at Austin
Cynthia Talbot, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

This panel will focus on the varied ways communities demarcate meaning and territory of the past in South and Central Asia.  The cases, ranging from the nineteenth century to the contemporary period, shed light on localized concepts of commemoration.  Drawing on investigations of different sites this session explores the diverse ways history is sustained, known and employed to nourish particular identities. By leveraging a range of atypical archival sources, consisting of literary, oral, visual, material and spatial sources, the papers underscore historiographical practices and forms of historical memory in these regions that remain understudied. Moreover, by questioning the marginality of such source material the panel also deepens an understanding of how the historian’s investigation ties history to other disciplines such as religion, anthropology, geography and political science.

Each paper investigates how practices of commemoration create particular notions of the past and shape distinct identities in the local landscape.  Shruti Patel’s essay examines how lila, a longstanding way of imagining the divine in South Asia, transformed into an apparatus of historiography for the religious community of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya in Gujarat, India during the nineteenth century. Analyzing the concept of lila and its contemporary archival production, Patel’s paper demonstrates how the practice of historically enlivening the past in the Shree Swaminarayan Museum through material, visual and literary sources has critically served to distinguish the group from other prominent religious identities in Gujarat.  Amber Abbas's paper maps alternative histories of the 1947 Indian partition that emerge from the memories of survivors. The oral archive reveals how meaning was re-forged after partition as narrators placed its meaning in personal geographies imbued with anxieties of belonging to the newly created states of India and Pakistan. For these narrators, partition was a local experience, its meaning was embodied in particular places: cinema halls, train cars, and university dormitories far from the disputed borders.  Arafaat Valiani’s paper explores commemorative religious processions in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. Valiani’s essay appraises the balance of non-violent and violent forms of participation in public processions, and shifts in the meanings therein for heterogeneous Hindu and Muslim communities in the city. Interpreting textual, visual and oral sources, in addition to ethnographic observations of recent processions, the essay underscores the process by which political violence became commonplace in the very city that Mohandas Gandhi’s celebrated non-violent movement originated. Jennifer Webster’s paper on the shrine of Takht-i Sulaiman in Osh, Kyrgyzstan explores how contemporary elites preserve and revise the (pre)Islamic and Soviet pasts and attempt to harness the interpretation of those pasts through architecture, photography, and literature. Through an analysis of ethnographic, visual and written materials, Webster’s paper reveals how contemporary everyday pious and devotional practices at shrines in Kyrgyzstan are complicated by the production of historical memory. 

The panel aims to expand the ways in which we think about notions of the past and its repositories, both as subjects of investigation and as reflections of research practice and the writing of history for historians and scholars of other related disciplines.

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